NORMAN — The Oklahoma football team returns Saturday to the public stage for the first time since New Orleans.
When last we saw the Sooners, they played football the way Jerry Lee Lewis played piano. The way Russell Westbrook plays hoops. Take no prisoners. Someone going to the boneyard.
The Sooners ran onto the Superdome turf like Braveheart and never left character. Turns out, not a bad way to play a ballgame. Aggressive. Confident. Determined. The Sooners swung their swords all night long and left 45-31 Sugar Bowl winners over mighty Alabama.
Two questions. From where did that frame of mind come? And how do the Sooners keep it?
Those New Orleans Sooners weren’t who we saw much of the 2013 season. Not in attitude. The Sooners consistently tried to tip-toe to victory. Home games against West Virginia and Iowa State, road game at Kansas, even the emotional wringer of the Cotton Bowl against Texas. The Sooners played those games like they were trying to avoid landmines. Coaches, too. OU did its best to not be noticed.
Then the Sooners seemed to realize that wasn’t working. They played with a sense of resiliency at Manhattan and pulled a minor upset. They played with conviction and resolve at Stillwater and pulled a major upset. They played with their hair on fire in New Orleans and shocked the sporting world.
“That was just from being called the underdog, and you feel a little disrespected,” said OU defensive lineman Chuka Ndulue. “This is Oklahoma. We’re not the underdogs. We bought into that, coaches preached that and it showed on the field.”
I can buy that. A we’re-mad-and-we’re-not-going-to-take-it-anymore feeling can change anyone’s demeanor. A season’s frustration – a miserable outing against Texas, sparked by an anemic coaches’ gameplan, and a series of mundane performances – boiled over and begat desperation. A good game against Kansas State led to a great game against OSU, and that Bedlam bonanza led to the belief that something special could happen against ’Bama.
Bob Stoops said that kind of feeling doesn’t appear all of a sudden. “We earned it through the last four games of the year, particularly on the road to Manhattan, on the road to Stillwater, and then coming into the bowl game, the way we prepared and worked,” Stoops said. “The guys felt they had earned the right to carry that kind of confidence and play that way.”
The transformation was remarkable. The Sooners played with a swagger that had been missing for many moons.
“We try to get better every game,” said pass rusher Eric Striker, who played the William Wallace role in the Sugar Bowl. “That was like the motto. If you don’t get better every game, that’s no progress. So that was our progress. Get better every game. You get a little bit more swagger, the better you do, the little bit more confidence. That’s where that came from.”
Maybe it was a perfect storm of success meeting opportunity. Had the stars not aligned and placed OU in the Sugar Bowl, had the Sooners been assigned Missouri in JerryWorld or Oregon in the Alamodome, maybe the Braveheart attitude doesn’t develop.
But OU got a chance at Alabama, and the SEC, in the SEC’s territorial grounds of New Orleans. And the Sooners sang the song of angry men. Can they stay angry? Can the beating of their heart echo the beating of the drums?
The Sooners can’t play the disrespect card.
“I have a feeling they won’t be calling us the underdogs, but we’ve got to remember that last year no one gave us a chance,” Ndulue said, “and we should keep that mentality going and everything will be good.”
It’s not easy to stay Braveheart. Relaxation usually follows revolution. If it was easy, all teams that find that mystical swagger would keep it.
“You have a chance to carry that from after that game, the way so many of these guys are back,” Stoops said. “They’re projecting that confidence and leadership the way they went through winter and what they’re doing now … it has a chance to carry through the summer to have a great summer and to build for next year. It should anyway.”
That’s Stoops’ job. Keep the hearts brave. Keep the hair ablaze. Keep the boneyard fresh in every Sooner mind.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.